Monday, February 18, 2008

Language and Stats: Trying to Cage the River's Flow?

It's always good to see people cutting to the chase, especially when the chase concerns wild language hunts. Welcome, then, are Richard Pring's calls to quit using Orwellian Language in education (linked via a different Richard). Pring is the lead author on a Nuffield report into educational aims and values, areas which the report notes have come to be "dominated by the language of management". The Beeb article does a good job of facing up to the industrial-scentific-managerialism that currently pervades, well, most places:
The need to measure everything and to find equivalents for different types of education arises from a natural enough desire to achieve value-for-money...

But it can also be a strait-jacket, implying that all types of learning can, and should, be forced into the same model.
There are 2 issues here, both familiar to ITM:

One: Measurements are Not Reality.

This is the same problem faced by any scientist, or by the RAE, or by anyone trying to measure creativity. There is similarly an equally diverse range of analogies to approach this problem: the Hawthorne effect if you're a social scientist, quantum collapse, or a central tenet of taoism. All deal with the difference between what is "real" - or what is really happening - and what happens to that reality when you try to "catch it", try to turn it into a "comprehensible form" such as numbers.

The last of these, tao, provides an interesting link to point 2, though. The tao can be described as a river, and "un-tao" behaviour can be likened to trying to catch the river in a bucket. Yes, you may have the same water, but do you have a river? Measurement can (but not must) suffer from the same problem - generally, when measurement is turned into targets, or used as the sole means of assessing something from "afar".

This divide between "reality" and "representation" (numbers) underlies point two. If numbers are one way of seeing the world, then words are another. Words are flexible. (I could post this in another language, but make the same points.) But they are still just representation. The "tao" called the "tao" ain't the real "tao".

And, as if by magic, language is where we end up next...

Two: Language Reflects Organisation.

To clarify the above, words are flexible, but they are not equally flexible. Some words are designed to mean one thing and one thing only. On the other hand, some words move towards the "tao" end of the range, and are often deliberately constructed to mean nothing-in-particular. Science is often concerned with knowing exactly what someone means when he-or-she uses a particular word. While this is useful when trying to communicate ideas between people, it is less useful when an individual is trying to deal directly with the Fabric of the Universe (or, indeed, the creativity of a pupil).

And this is the mess we're in. Many public institutions (and private, but that's their problem. For now...) have to address these 2 goals: 1. Get things done (i.e. a direct interaction with "reality"), and 2. Organise themselves to get this done (governing), and communicate this to those watching (transparency).

Language is necessary because words act as rallying symbols - focus points upon which efforts are built. But as we move increasingly into a society based on documents, rather than speeches, how can the two ends be reconciled? That is, a government needs to be both able to work without getting bogged down in explanations, but also keep itself open to scrutiny from outside. Personally, I think much of the mess we're comes about from trying to bodge these two concepts together under one "hack" roof.

Schools are thus not the only playground for such a conflict. The Plain English campaign do a good job of trying to cut through the rhetorical crap in all areas of governance. The as-yet-dismissed private sector leads the way in coping strategies, but the infestation continues to creep into the public sector.

Some of the problem comes from Wanting Change. Change, supposedly, requires new effort, and new ideas. But we don't have time to explain these ideas or efforts, so new words take their place. Words symbolise effort in a soundbite society. But they crystallise, and all we're left with is a world of words that don't mean anything any more. We can't go back to words like "teaching", because the very definition of the word is caught up in history, legacy, and "ineffectiveness". Progress - hope - is our saviour now. New language. Newspeak. Brave new linguistic world.

Language is a platform for power. If people understand each other, they can organise themselves. Fuzzy language, then, is fuzzy power. It is "understandable" if (and only if) the background for a term is understood. That is, to understand a word, you must understand the "culture", or section of society that the term has emerged from. Understanding "p < 0.05" (or "significance" if you want a single word), for example, requires understanding probabilistic statistical distributions, not numbers. Thus, explaining things through language alone is shortsighted - gaps in culture must be taken into account too. This is why one should be wary when government insist purely on discussion/consultation alone. Discussion is nothing without background.

Having said that, not all newspeak is inherently bad. Fluffy language (I believe) is a counterpoint to overly-scientific terms. As measurements and benchmarks and indicators are increasingly applied, the only way to give oneself flexibility becomes to fudge the indicators and the words that get used. In other words, a focus on accountability, through "measureability", results in an opposition to this stringency, which manifests itself as nonsense. Nonsense detracts from transparency, yes, but it also permits flexibility, creativity, and the art of personal judgement. An expert cannot necessarily tell you what he or she does.

Nuffield and the Plain English campaign are clearly right to address the eel-like nature of modern rhetoric. Having people who don't know what they're doing being unable to tell you what they're not doing is no way to run anything. But rather than hammer out terms even more, or even return to "old" terms, what we really need are those people able to act with exeprience, with judgement, with skill, but who can also explain what they're doing in readily-understandable terms.

Ultimately, this is not hard. But to achieve it, we must first understand that just because someone makes something look or sound simple doesn't necessarily mean that the job itself is simple.

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